17 May 2021

Like all the best timeless stories, after the breakout of COVID-19 in March 2020, the mini-novel “Journey to the east” by Herman Hesse returned in a new form. Many employees felt that their sense of belonging and their daily interactions with colleagues and supervisors just eroded.

Managers and supervisors in turn have been worried about the disintegration of their workplaces’ sense of community, as employees have vanished, retreating to their homes. Equal concerns have been raised as to whether the core mission of a company can be carried out or goals achieved anymore, after teams and work groups have disappeared into the stream of Teams and Zoom.

Over the past year, there has been a special need for leaders such as Leo, who see it as a priority to help their followers succeed and grow in their work. Leading is serving.

The concept of servant leadership has been around now for 50 years. It is a leadership philosophy, a set of practices and interpersonal skills first introduced by American Robert Greenleaf. He claims that his vision of leadership – primarily a task of serving people – was inspired by Herman Hesse’s mini novel I mentioned above.

More than other leadership theories, this theory is about promoting employees’ well-being and growth being a leader’s primary task. Servant leadership also has a strong ethical dimension: The goal is to serve the good of the whole, for which two-way dialogue, trust, being present, and caring are important.

Instead of controlling and commanding, a servant leader exercises their power for the benefit of others. In contrast to forcing people to do things, servant leaders use persuasion when needed, while still holding employees accountable for their own performance. Servant leadership is not an “anything goes” leadership style, nor an ego or career trip; although hopefully, serving others also results in success in the leader’s career!

So, how has servant leadership been practised during the pandemic? What could it be in this new work life that is moving towards self-managed teams and organizations? Below I describe how I see servant leadership: as five deepening steps and remote work practices…. also far beyond these times of COVID-19 and also concerning non-remote work:

1. The three important basic issues

The first basic thing in leading employees’ engagement – motivation and well-being – is not to damage employees’ willingness to do a good job, even when circumstances are changing. Trust is not deserved; it is given, and when necessary, corrective discussions may be needed. Initiative and proactivity mustn’t be stifled. Instead, employees should be encouraged to proactively find the best work practices under changing or otherwise exceptional circumstances.

Another basic issue in leadership is clarifying goals and common purpose. These may disappear from the horizon during normal times too, but do so particularly under prolonged exceptional circumstances, such as when forced to work from home.

As the third basic issue, I believe that every leader and supervisor should ensure their own personal well-being and engagement. Without energy or support, it’s difficult to serve others and aim for the good.

2. Treating people as human beings

In today’s work life, in which self-management, remote work and exceptional work arrangements are increasing, leadership no longer concerns only departments and teams.

It’s important to treat employees individually as human beings, and to be humane yourself. Questions like: How are you? What do you need so as to manage? How can I help you? show caring and approval.

3. Boosting the positive

Constant remote work may have led to earlier conventional and functional practices that boost positive practices to gradually decrease, unnoticed. Paying attention to even small accomplishments and giving positive feedback is valuable. These are means with which to strengthen employees’ feelings of being appreciated and that what they’re doing is enough.

In leading the group, it’s also worth boosting positive interaction, even via laptops, as well as the sense that we all are in the same boat. In practice, this means through both words and deeds, by for example emphasizing and clarifying the common goal and creating a horizon of hope and a better future.

4. Paying attention to professional growth

Servant leaders also focus on and envision the future of their followers. They encourage trying out new things and crafting one’s job; enable the learning of new skills; generously share knowledge, skills and networks; and build prospects for future career paths.

These are important for all employees, but perhaps even more so for those who have just started at a new workplace or have been total newcomers work life during the pandemic.

5. Servant leadership as a company culture

In Robert Greenleaf’s challenging vision, the ultimate test of servant leadership is, “whether those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” When a leader loosens control and strengthens individual and social resources, it’s possible to take steps towards shared servant leadership – as characterized by Alexandre Dumas in The three musketeers: “All for one, one for all, united we stand, divided we fall!”

Our studies support the challenging core idea of servant leadership

All five steps and practices of servant leadership build trust, appreciation and a sense of belonging, and through these, well-being and engagement, eventually leading to sustainably good performance at work.

I’ve studied servant leadership in Finland for more than a decade, through different longitudinal research and in more practical projects: For example, in a three-year follow-up study which involved 87 organizations; more recently in 18-month follow up study in 34 municipalities; and now in an ongoing, three-wave two-year pre- and during COVID-19 project in seven organizations.

In our recent study, Janne Kaltiainen and I (Kaltiainen & Hakanen, 2021; see below the reference) investigated the importance of servant leadership under changing and unstable conditions for employee well-being and performance in municipalities:

In an 18-month follow-up study we found that servant leadership predicted an increase in work engagement which in turn predicted good job performance and the achievement of goals, as well as adaptive performance under change through, for example, creativity, stress resistance and collaboration skills. In addition, servant leadership predicted a decrease in burnout, which also improved adaptability to changes.

In our ongoing, seven-organization longitudinal study, we’ve found that among those who’ve worked from home throughout the pandemic, perceptions of servant leadership have even improved. Employee well-being in this group has also remained stable.

Our studies support the challenging core idea of servant leadership – employees come first, and then productive performance – and how this is possible even under conditions of insecurity; insecurities which are likely to emerge also after the acute phase of the present pandemic is over.


Further information:

Over the years, in addition to empirical studies, many books have been written on servant leadership. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend you read my favourite book, recently written by James Laub: “Leveraging the power of servant leadership – Building high performing organizations”.

I was given the opportunity to write an endorsement in this book: “…without a doubt, James Laub has written the book about servant leadership. It’s thorough, it’s engaging, it’s practical, and what’s best, it’s also theory-driven and research-based. I warmly recommend this book to anyone who wants to develop a servant leader mindset and thus become a good leader.”

Another new edited book: “Practicing servant leadership – developments in implementation” contains researchers and practitioners’ theoretical insights as well as practical models for implementing a servant leadership culture in organizations. It contains a chapter that I wrote with Anne Birgitta Pessi “Practicing compassionate leadership and building spirals of inspiration in business and in public sector.”

Our open access study:

Kaltiainen, J. & Hakanen, J. J. (2021). Servant Leadership and Employee Task and Adaptive Performance During Organizational Changes: Roles of Work Engagement and Burnout. Business Review Quarterly.

Laub, J. (2018). Leveraging the Power of Servant Leadership. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.

van Dierendonck D. & Patterson K. (Eds) (2018). Practicing Servant Leadership. USA: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

About the writer:

Jari studies the sources of a good and engaging work life. Among other things, he is interested in all types of leaders’ and employees’ behaviours that go beyond merely performing a task, without which organizations cannot flourish and employees cannot stay well and engaged in their work. In 2020, he was awarded a gold medal of special merit for particularly distinguished and long-standing nationwide efforts to promote better work environments in Finland.